Bacon's Rebellion

Is the Big Problem at Richmond Schools Decrepit Buildings or Teacher Turnover?

Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond. Richmond has several beautiful new schools. What difference have they made?

The City of Richmond is debating proposals to spend $740 million to $800 million to modernize the city’s school buildings after years of neglect. The latest new wrinkle reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch is that the Richmond School Board has delayed a vote on the grounds that it needed more time to ponder the plan. The main concern expressed so far — where on earth would the money come from? — is valid. But there is an even more fundamental question: Will modernizing school buildings do anything to reverse the school system’s atrocious under-performance?

No question, many school buildings are aging and sub-standard, with crumbling tiles, broken toilets, wheezing HVAC systems, and leaking roofs. They are an embarrassment and a disgrace, and they need to be fixed. But that should cost a fraction of the sums being discussed.

Based on the conviction that creating a better physical environment can improve academic performance, Richmond has built several expensive new school buildings in recent years. As part of their deliberations, School Board members should examine whether those buildings have made any difference in educational achievement of the children who passed through their doors.

Here’s what I hear. While new buildings provide a better physical environment, poor children from broken homes in inner city neighborhoods bring the same emotional and disciplinary issues to school. Young, inexperienced teachers are shocked and dismayed by the environment, they get burned out and they leave. The Richmond school system has such a horrendous reputation among teachers in the metropolitan area that it couldn’t hire enough to fill its classrooms this fall, meaning it has had to rely more heavily than ever upon substitute teachers, some of whom probably shouldn’t be teaching at all. Prediction: Richmond’s teacher shortage will get even worse in January when burned-out teachers decide after Christmas Break they don’t want to return.

Once basic health and safety standards are resolved, Richmond schools have more urgent priorities than building fancy new school buildings. Above all, the system needs to address the problem of school discipline and teacher churn.

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